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Francis Declares War On Sex Abuse

Pope Francis in closing address to Rome sex abuse meeting today (CNN screenshot)

There he goes again:

Pope Francis ended a landmark Vatican meeting on clerical sexual abuse with an appeal “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors,” which he compared to human sacrifice, but his speech did not offer concrete policy remedies demanded by many of the faithful.

In the speech at the end of a Mass in the Apostolic Palace’s frescoed Sala Reggia hall, Francis argued that “even a single case of abuse” in the Roman Catholic Church — which he said was the work of the devil — must be met “with the utmost seriousness.” He said that eradicating the scourge required more than legal processes and “disciplinary measures.”

“To combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission,” the pope said, the church needed to protect children “from ravenous wolves.”

Right. You been following the new scandal with Francis protege Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta of Argentina? Francis knew that this guy was a sex maniac, but brought him to Rome anyway. The other day, an Argentine newspaper published photos proving that the matter went all the way to Rome — in other words, that the Pope knew that he was dealing with a bishop who, among other things, molested seminarians under his authority.

True, Francis in his Rome speech today focused on the sexual abuse of minors. And, according to reporting in National Catholic Register, the guidelines the pontiff offered in his speech are sensible. They are:

Building upon the World Health Organization’s “Seven Strategies for Ending Violence against Children,” the pope presented eight guidelines to aid the Church in “developing her legislation” on the issues.

The eight guidelines can be summarized as follows:

1. A “change of mentality” to focus on protecting children rather than “protecting the institution.”
2. A recognition of the “impeccable seriousness” of these “sins and crimes of consecrated persons.”
3. A genuine purification beginning with “self-accusation.”
4. Positive formation of candidates for the priesthood in the virtue of chastity.
5. Strengthening and reviewing of guidelines by episcopal conferences, reaffirming the need for “rules.”
6. The accompaniment of those who have been abused with an emphasis on listening.
7. Ensure that seminarians and clergy are not enslaved to an addiction to pornography.
8. Combat sexual tourism around the world.

Fine. But as we know from the McCarrick story, seminarians are at the complete mercy of their bishop. Who gains by Francis focusing narrowly and exclusively on priests who prey on minors, and only on minors?

Just before this meeting, the Catholic journalist Phil Lawler wrote about how it was going to be primarily a public relations exercise, and identified the aspects of the scandal that Francis and his Rome meeting would avoid talking about:

  • homosexual influence within the clergy;

  • why the Vatican has eased penalties on abusive priests;

  • why the Pope himself has promoted bishops accused of covering up—and in some cases actively engaging in—sexual abuse;

  • canonical structures to hold bishops accountable for negligence;

  • how Theodore McCarrick rose to ecclesiastical influence, and who protected him.

We are seventeen years past the Boston scandal revelations, which brought this crisis to public view. There have been many good words spoken by popes. Here’s Pope John Paul II, from his address to the US cardinals on April 23, 2002, with the abuse scandal mushrooming in the US:

The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God. To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern…

It must be absolutely clear to the Catholic faithful, and to the wider community, that Bishops and superiors are concerned, above all else, with the spiritual good of souls. People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young. They must know that Bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.

At this point, though, do people take words from popes seriously? I’m not asking in a trolling way. How are people to believe that the pope is really serious this time about cracking down on clerical sex abuse when he behaves the way he has done in the Zanchetta affair. It suggests pretty clearly that the abuse Francis cares about is abuse of minors. If bishops want to force themselves on seminarians, well, that’s not such a big deal, is it? Just to make clear you understand what the Zanchetta affair involves, the Associated Press reports today:

The Associated Press has reported that the Vatican knew as early as 2015 about Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta’s inappropriate behavior with seminarians. Yet he was allowed to stay on as bishop of the northern Argentine diocese of Oran on until 2017, when he resigned suddenly, only to be given a top job at the Vatican by Francis, his confessor.

New documents published by the Tribune of Salta newspaper show that the original 2015 complaint reported that Zanchetta had gay porn on his cellphone involving “young people” having sex, as well as naked images of Zanchetta masturbating that he sent to others.

The age of the “young people” isn’t clear. But Francis told his summit Sunday that Vatican legislation criminalizing possession of child porn involving children under age 14 should change to include older victims.

“We now consider that this age limit should be raised in order to expand the protections of minors and to bring out the gravity of these deeds,” Francis said.

It wasn’t clear if Francis was referring to the Zanchetta case, which is now under investigation by both the Vatican and Argentine judicial authorities after alleged victims came forward accusing Zanchetta of sexual abuse.

The Vatican has insisted that Zanchetta was only facing “governance” problems at the time of his 2017 resignation and appointment at the Vatican, and that the first sexual abuse allegation was made in late 2018.

The documents, however, make clear that the Vatican was aware of inappropriate sexual behavior by Zanchetta two years before he resigned.

For those keeping score, I am getting close to the end of Frederic Martel’s In The Closet Of The Vatican. His reporting on corruption under the pontificate of John Paul II is at times based on more solid ground than what I’ve read previously in this book, but the whole thing is still deeply compromised by Martel’s stunning lack of journalistic professionalism. A small note: I know almost nothing about Spain, but I found three errors of fact in his chapter on the Spanish church. He keeps reminding us in his narrative about how many researchers he had on this book. Either he’s lying about that, or they did a very poor job, or the publisher rushed it to publication.

I’ll write more about the book when I complete it, but here is a harsh critique of it from the Catholic left; I am not a fan of Michael Sean Winters’s commentaries, but in this case, he’s right about how bad this book is. I predicted — wrongly, as it turns out — that In The Closet Of The Vatican would overshadow coverage of the Rome meeting. Had it been a more credible book, it would have. But it didn’t for the same reasons that The New York Times is not the same thing as the National Enquirer.

Anyway, I recognize that I’m very, very jaded about this topic, but I don’t understand how Catholics can take their leadership seriously on this issue anymore. If you are a Catholic who does believe that the pope and the bishops can be trusted now to get it right, I invite you to explain why. To be perfectly clear: I’m not taunting at all; I honestly want to know.

The loss of credibility of the hierarchy is one reason why I believe faithful Catholics have got to take some form of the Benedict Option. That’s what the young Catholic of the self-described “Resistance” in Spain are doing. They do not repudiate the institutional Church — if they did, they would cease to be Catholics — but they no longer expect anything from them. Instead, they are taking responsibility for educating and forming themselves as faithful orthodox Catholics, and building community. From that post:

“We used to be the defender of all this,” Ramon said. “The church is mediocre. The church was the first to betray the true Spanish spirit. … The Church has been unfaithful to its mission many times. Who abandoned the Cristeros? The Church. We know the Church is made of men, and they betray Christ constantly. We are men, and we betray Christ constantly. We have a lot of history of the betrayal of clerics. We don’t care now.”

We don’t care now. Those words struck me like a gong. These young men struck me as pious and sincere Catholics who, because of their piety and sincerity, don’t really care what their bishops think of them.

In his speech in Rome today, Francis called for an “all-out battle” against sexual abuse of minors, but the metaphor rings hollow for these young Spanish Catholics I talked to last month. More:

Ramon told me that “the deeper battle is the one people can’t see.” The battle for authority, he says, is lost. Though all the young men I spoke with are strongly Catholic, they have given up expecting their bishops to do anything about the crisis. They feel like spiritual orphans.

“We have no shepherds right now,” he said. “What would a soldier do if he can’t see the captain? He would be a guerrilla. He would assemble all those who fight for the flag, even if they’re under different uniforms. [For us, it’s] the Cross, and Spain, and Tradition.”

UPDATE: Ramon e-mails to emphasize that he and his friends are faithful Catholics who believe the Church is holy. It’s only that they have no faith in the competence of the current generation of hierarchical leadership. That is not the same thing as disbelieving in the authority of the hierarchy itself. As Catholics, they accept the legitimacy of the hierarchy … but think the current hierarchy is a mess.

It seems to me that this, and some version of the Benedict Option, is the only reasonable conclusion left to Catholics who still believe in Catholicism, and want to see it prevail through this great crisis, of which the sexual corruption of the clergy is only one manifestation. Tell me what you think. Catholic readers, did the Rome meeting, and the pope’s closing speech, make you more confident that the institutional Church is going to get itself sorted out?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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